Empower Oregon is an integrated campaign of SEIU Local 503, with the goal of uniting frontline mental health and addictions workers to successfully advocate for their clients, their services and themselves from their workplaces all the way to the State Capitol.
One of the biggest challenges to quality community based social services is adequate funding. Empower Oregon volunteers, many from unrepresented private non profit social service agencies, joined 503 members in January to pass two tax reform measures which saved much of the current funding levels for critical services in Oregon. This was no small task since Oregonians historically turn down any sort of tax related measures.
In March, after a bill passed implementing severely restrictive criminal history background check rules for workers, our efforts obtained a delay in implementation for drug and alcohol counselors. Many of the most successful additions counselors were once users themselves with criminal histories connected to their substance abuse. Overcoming their addictions adds much value to their life experience often making them the most credible and effective counselors for those still suffering. Since the delay in the new law covering addictions counselors was not permanent, sustained effort was called for.
In July Empower Oregon and ACCBO, the Addiction Counselor Certification Board of Oregon, lead a “Recovery Oriented Systems of Care” public forum on the issue. Voice was given to hundreds of affected addictions counselors, clients, and community supporters who came together to listen, share and learn about restrictive and inconsistent issues with Oregon’s criminal background check system. Present to hear the testimony was a panel of legislators and State Department of Human Services officials. State Representative Michael Dembrow summed up the thoughts of everyone who attended the forum by saying: “If the law prevents [therapists and caregivers] from working in this field and giving back to the community, then the law must be changed.”
Stakeholders continue to come together, lead by Empower Oregon’s effort to give front line workers a real voice for quality accessible community based mental health and addictions services. Many workers interested in a lasting voice at their agencies as well as the Capitol are taking a look at becoming part of SEIU Local 503 in order to join with union members who serve the same clients and mirror their dedication to quality services. They see that when it comes to improving the quality of services we provide, they really are stronger together.